India and US army chiefs call for free and stable Indo-Pacific as Chinese influence grows

NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s army chief on Tuesday said the country was committed to maintaining a free and stable Indo-Pacific, where the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations is respected, as global concern grows over Chinese influence in the region.

General Manoj Pande made the comments at the Indo-Pacific Army Chiefs Conference, hosted by India and the U.S., which is focused on boosting military diplomacy and collaboration as well as promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Army chiefs and delegations from 30 countries are attending the two-day event, which concludes Wednesday.

Pande said that while countries in the region are working toward a free Indo-Pacific, “we are witnessing manifestations of interstate contestations and competition” — a veiled reference to China, which has stepped up its activities in the region.

Neither Pande nor the U.S. Army chief, Randy George, explicitly mentioned China in their remarks.

When asked about Chinese expansion at a press briefing, George said the region was a critical priority for the U.S. “It’s why we are out here and why we exercise more than anywhere else in the Pacific, to build all of this. What this conference proves… is (our) unity and commitment,” the U.S. chief said.

At the opening ceremony held after, Pande said India’s outlook was focused on the peaceful resolution of disputes, avoiding force and adhering to international law. He added that in addition to challenges in maritime security, the region also faced security and humanitarian concerns on land, including territorial disputes and over “artificially expanded islands to acquire real estate and establish military bases” — another veiled reference to China.

China’s territorial claims in the East China and South China seas over islands have rattled Beijing’s smaller neighbors in Southeast Asia as well as Japan. Meanwhile the relationship between New Delhi and Beijing has deteriorated since 2020, when Indian and Chinese troops clashed along their undefined border in the Himalayan Ladakh region, leaving 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers dead.